Dir: Sofia Coppola, based on the 1966 novel A Painted Devil by Thomas Cullinan. Cast: Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Colin Farrell.
94 mins, 2017, USA.
A starry cast appear to enjoy themselves hugely in this stagey Gothic tale of sex, mutilation and murder in the Deep South.
Set in Virginia, three years into the American Civil War, pig-tailed Amelia (Oona Laurence), foraging for mushrooms in the woods, comes across a badly wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell), whom she helps back to the Seminary for Young Ladies, where the Principal, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), her helper Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and five of the young ladies have been marooned by the fighting. Should they tie a blue rag to the school gates to let any passing Confederate troops know that an enemy soldier lies within? Or should they do the Christian thing and tend to him, at least until his leg has healed?
Miss Martha chooses the latter course, and naturally, in this far from naturalistic film, each and every one of the ladies comes to fall for Corporal McBurney’s Irish lilt and hunky body.
Ismay: Let’s be honest: it was a bit weird. Nothing happened for forty-five minutes – although they were forty-five very beautiful minutes – and then the film seemed to turn into a bizarre comedy. I didn’t get a great deal out of it, but I enjoyed the hour and a half spent watching it.
A bit weird it is: not least to have a film set in the Deep South in the Civil War which features no black characters at all. We’re told early on that the slaves have all ‘run away’.
As Ismay says, nothing really happens in the first half. Even the dialogue is wonderfully minimal. It’s all very dreamy. Every now and again one of the girls comes out on to the balcony of the school’s strange neo-classical building, holds a telescope to her eye and peers into the distance. What can she see? All we see are the dripping trees of the misty enchanted forest that surrounds them. Meanwhile I was worrying about how the corporal, locked in the music room, was able to perform his bodily functions, but I then accepted that it must be in the same way as the young ladies’ dresses remain snowy white, and meals are cooked and cleared away: as if by magic.
But when Corporal McBurney makes his move these questions stop mattering as Sofia Coppola ramps up the strangeness and the film turns into something creepy, a little bit scary, and quite a lot funny. Who’s doing the beguiling now?
The women’s performances are uniformly good. Oona Laurence and Addison Riecke as the littlest girls are terrific. In the face of such performers poor old Colin Farrell doesn’t really stand a chance. He’s not quite bright enough to realise he might have been better off handed over to the Confederates.